Russian President Vladimir Putin was accused at the opening of an inquiry into the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko of presiding over a “mafia state” with links to organised crime syndicates in Spain. Ben Emmerson QC, representing Litvinenko’s widow Marina (pictured below) at the public inquiry, claimed: “The startling truth, which is going to be revealed in public by the evidence in this inquiry, is that a significant part of the Russian organised crime around the world is organised directly from the office of the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a mafia state,” Mr Emmerson alleged to the inquiry. The former Russian spy, who died after ingesting radioactive polonium 210, may have been poisoned “not once but twice”, the inquiry into his death was told.
Sir Robert Owen, Chairman of the public inquiry, said the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death brought in to focus issues of the “utmost gravity”, which had attracted “worldwide interest and concern”. The postmortem examination carried out on Alexander Litvinenko was “probably the most dangerous ever conducted in the western world”, and confirmed that Litvinenko was the victim of acute radiation poisoning. Dr Nathaniel Cary, the consultant forensic pathologist who examined Litvinenko’s body, said he and other officials examining the corpse wore not one but two protective suits, two pairs of gloves taped at the wrists and large battery-operated plastic hoods into which filtered air was piped. Litvinenko died on 23 November 2006 in the intensive care ward at University College Hospital, London. His body was so radioactive that staff left it in situ for two days, still attached to life-support machines and drips.
Litvinenko had met two Russian contacts, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, on 1 November 2006 in the Millennium Hotel (pictured below) in central London. The two allegedly slipped polonium-210 intoLitvinenko’s tea. He suffered cardio-respiratory failure twice, with doctors forced to resuscitate him. The third time, however, they were unable to save him and at 11pm on 23 November he died. Throughout his illness Litvinenko’s symptoms had confounded medical staff. They had quickly suspected radiation poisoning but tests for conventional gamma radiation had proved negative. According to Emmerson, doctors then had an inspired hunch. On 21 November they brought in an atomic weapons expert who suggested testing for alpha radiation – much rarer, and emitted by virtually unknown polonium-210. Doctors took a urine and blood sample. The inquiry also heard anonymous evidence from a senior nuclear scientist who had carried out extensive tests on a range of sites contaminated with polonium-210. They included the Pine Bar – where Litvinenko met Lugovoi and Kovtun (pictured below) and drank the ill-fated cup of tea – as well as in various London hotel rooms used by the visiting Russians.
The respected judge Sir Robert Owen said the highly deadly toxin fed to the former KGB spy could have been used to ‘kill large numbers of people or spread general panic and hysteria among the public’. On the opening day of the inquiry into his death, the Royal Courts of Justice heard radioactive traces were found in ‘large numbers of places’ after two Russian hitmen laced Mr Litvinenko’s tea with a lethal dose polonium-210 at a London hotel. Robin Tam QC, counsel to the public inquiry, said: ‘Many thousands of members of the public, including British residents and visitors from overseas, might have been at risk from radioactivity.’ Sir Robert described the killing as ‘a miniature nuclear attack on the streets of London’. Mr Litvinenko’s final few days were spent in isolation in University College Hospital. It was then the haunting photo of him wearing a green hospital gown, his hair having fallen out through radiation poisoning, was taken.
Polonium is an exceptionally rare element, with only around 100g produced every year. Mr Emmerson told the court the quantity given to Mr Litvinenko was worth ‘tens of millions of dollars’. He added: ‘It is, we say, unlikely in the extreme any private individual or purely criminal enterprise would choose such a costly method of assassination. ‘For the Russian state, however, which produces polonium-210 itself, the costs of the assassination would not be prohibitive.’ Lugovoi and Kovtun brought the chemical to the UK on flights from Russia to London in October, he said. The multi-million inquiry into Mr Litvinenko’s death will hear from some 70 witnesses and is expected to last ten weeks.
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